What do “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “The Scarlet Letter” have in common? All three have been either banned or challenged across American school libraries.
Due to a lack of coverage, book censorship often gets swept under the rug and people outside of the immediate impact zone do not realize it is happening. However, events like Banned Book Week are bringing attention to the issue of book censorship.
Book censorship is a broad issue with different sources of contention, from a publisher’s decision to censor possibly offensive aspects of a book to a library debating whether or not to carry a certain book to the attempt to remove a book already in the library or being taught in a classroom. The former two sources of book censorship are difficult for students to prevent but the latter source is one that students can and should take an active role in.
The reasons that books are banned or challenged vary, with profanity, sexual explicitness or violence as the most cited reasons in cases involving schools. “The Grapes of Wrath” or “Beloved” are examples of books challenged in libraries or class curriculums exactly for those reasons. Sometimes “self censorship” occurs and books are quietly removed before anyone is the wiser or the books are just not placed on school library shelves to begin with.
“I don’t put out the annual Sport’s Illustrated Swimsuit issue, for example, because it objectifies women and perpetuates unhealthy stereotypes,” LAHS librarian Gordon Jack said. “That could be considered censorship, but I feel like I could defend that choice to a community if people objected. Of course, if enough people objected, then I would change my stance. What’s important is the dialogue a community has surrounding these issues.”
The preemptive decision by librarians or teachers to choose not to put out or teach “Sports Illustrated” or “50 Shades of Grey” is reasonable because they hold no clear intellectual stimulation. There is a distinction between reading material like that and literature that has been proven over time to have educational merit and has been critically praised for it. “Beloved” and other novels like it may be explicit in language or action, but they offer something to learn from.
If parents do make the choice to protect their own children from something they deem inappropriate or going against their values, that is their right as a parent. It is not, however, their right to prevent all other students from reading that same book. Book censorship becomes a problem when people attempt to force their ideas on everyone else.
There’s a reason the United States government does not ban and has not banned any books—it’s a violation of the First Amendment and it has been proven so time and time again by the Supreme Court. One such case was the Board of Education v. Pico in which the Supreme Court ruled against the school board’s ban of several books, among them Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five.”
“Local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books,” Justice William Brennan wrote in the conclusion of the case.
Even if the school board does manage to pass a ban on a book, the results of banning books often proves to have the opposite effect anyway. There have been several instances when banning a book has only made students want to read the book more, thereby making book banning a self-defeating action as with “Catcher in the Rye” or the Harry Potter series. Book censorship also has negative effects on the curriculum of English classes because, more often than not, books taught in English classes are the ones coming under fire.
“The immediate effect is that students aren’t able to read and benefit from some of the greatest works of literature we have, including works by Nobel Prize winning authors,” Jack said. “The long term effect is that our intellectual freedoms become slowly eroded to the point where it becomes easier and easier for a vocal minority to determine what we can read and what we can’t. That’s a very dangerous place for any free thinking society to be in.”
Book censorship may not be that big of a deal to many students out there, but it should be something that they question, not something they mindlessly agree to. To prevent this, students should be taking a deeper interest in the books that parents or the school board may be challenging.
“I think it is something students should care about,” Jack said. “We’re lucky that we live in an educated and progressive area where censorship and banning doesn’t occur often. I think we need to protect intellectual freedom whenever possible. What may be objectionable to one person, may be another’s life-changing book.”